The Accidental Guerrilla – Book Review
The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. David Kilcullen. Oxford University Press, 2009, Hardback, 346 pages. $27.95.
“This book, like its wars, is a hybrid: part field study, part personnel recollection; perhaps too academic to be popular and too populist to be purely academic.”
There seems to be no shortage of self-proclaimed experts in the areas of counterinsurgency (COIN), guerrilla warfare (GW), Al Qa’ida, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In truth, the preponderance of these experts possess little or no credibility in any of these areas. They provide nothing of value to those exposed willingly or unwillingly to their views. Unfortunately, many of these "pundits" have managed to carve out niches in various forms of media.
There are a select few people who truly speak with influence in the aforementioned subjects. One who has garnered a tremendous reputation is David Kilcullen. In fact, he is considered in several circles to be today’s foremost authority in COIN and GW. That is why, personally, I (and many others) have been anxiously awaiting the release of his first book, The Accidental Guerrilla.
What separates Kilcullen from his contemporaries is the distinctive combination of his experiences—academically, militarily, and to some extent politically—that enable him to view events and circumstances from a unique perspective. He is then able to articulate his analysis to others in a way that is understandable.
He earned a doctorate in politics from New South Wales University; his thesis was entitled, “The Political Consequences of Military Operations in Indonesia 1945–99: A Fieldwork Analysis of the Power-Diffusion Effects of Guerrilla Conflict.” Militarily, he served for twenty-plus years (retiring in 2006) as an infantry officer in the Australian Army. This service included various assignments involved in COIN and guerrilla warfare, with deployments in East Timor, Bougainville, and the Middle East.
Since his retirement from the Australian Army, Kilcullen’s reputation has escalated within the United States and the military community. His numerous COIN-related articles and papers have embraced, particularly by the United States military. It is no coincidence Kilcullen served as the Special Advisor for COIN to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and as General David Petraeus’ COIN advisor. In this role, he was part of the team that planned the "surge." In total, he has a truly impressive resume for the authorship of his first book, The Accidental Guerrilla.
Perhaps, the best and most obvious place to begin a review of Guerrilla is with the title. Although the author covers several distinct areas in detail, they all revolve around his theory of what he calls the accidental guerrilla. Based on field experiences and his extensive research, he believes this is the concept that essentially determines the outcome of any insurgency or counterinsurgency.
Kilcullen defines the accidental guerrilla as “the local fighter … fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours.” Thus, he stresses a population-centric approach in a COIN operation will set the conditions for members of the population not becoming accidental guerrillas. However, an enemy-centric approach that neglects the population can very well result in the population being swayed by the insurgents, through propaganda and/or intimidation, and the end result of this is the creation of the accidental guerrilla.
This is not revolutionary in COIN doctrine. What is distinctive is Kilcullen’s approach, which articulates the concept in an understandable way and breaks it down into the simplest of terms.
I believe most readers will find Kilcullen’s treatment of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars both extremely valuable and explored in a unique perspective. He is adamant the Iraq War was a serious strategic error; however, he is just as resolute that forces must now stay until the mission is complete. Kilcullen provides his recommendations on how to achieve this mission: the solution must be population-centric not enemy-centric.
He emphatically states, “Enemy-centric approaches that focus on the enemy, assuming that killing insurgents is the key task, rarely succeed. Population-centric approaches, that center on protecting local people and gaining their support, succeed more often” (the accidental guerrilla theory).
I found the most provocative portion of his discussion on Iraq was his assessment on why operations in the country are so challenging. Kilcullen states, “If we were to draw historical analogies, we might say operations in Iraq are like trying to defeat the Viet Cong (insurgency) while simultaneously rebuilding Germany (nation-building following war and dictatorship), keeping peace in the Balkans (communal and sectarian conflict), and defeating the IRA (domestic terrorism). These all have to be done at the same time, in the same place, and changes in one part of the problem significantly affect the others.”
In terms of the future of Afghanistan, Kilcullen is not overly optimistic. He states, “The Afghan campaign is at a strategic crossroads, and may indeed be approaching a tipping point. In my view, the conflict remains winnable, but the overall trend is extremely negative and a concerted long-term effort is needed—lasting 5-10 years at least—if we are to have any chance of building a resilient Afghan state and civil society that can defeat the threat from a resurgent Taliban and an increasingly active sanctuary in Pakistan.”
Despite the pessimistic tone, Kilcullen provides readers with a concise, yet comprehensive strategy on what to do next in Afghanistan. In reference to this strategy he states, “The ideas are not new; implementing them effectively would be.” I would suggest that Kilcullen’s ability to articulate this strategy in a succinct five pages is new. He takes these ideas and is able to dissect them into the elements of politics, security, economic and information in a way that all readers can comprehend.
Readers well-versed in COIN doctrine and principles may not obtain any significant nuggets to add to their understanding of the subject. Other prominent COIN authorities addressed the principles he stresses years earlier. Those who have read David Galula, T.E. Lawrence, Frank Kitson, or Sir Robert Thompson will be quite familiar with these principles. However, Kilcullen’s ability to intertwine analogies and place these principles in a different light will take these knowledgeable readers to the next step in their overall understanding of COIN.
Those who do not possess this level of understanding will also benefit tremendously from The Accidental Guerrilla. Throughout the volume, Kilcullen displays a rare ability to take the complicated and place it in straightforward terms. Nowhere is this displayed better than in the author’s use of two case studies: To highlight how the United States has effectively executed the concept of the accidental guerrilla, he details the Iraqi tribal uprising against Al Qa’ida during the 2007 Surge and the Kunar Afghanistan road construction project in 2008. Each of these studies is superbly crafted and highlights the theory of the accidental guerrilla perfectly.
While there is no question of my complete satisfaction with this book, I should provide some words of caution for prospective readers. First, some may find Kilcullen’s writing in the early stages of the book a bit too academic for them and they may lose interest in the book. This would be a huge mistake, as the author’s style loosens up quickly. Second, readers who like to complete books in one or two sittings will find that nearly impossible with The Accidental Guerrilla. It simply generates far too many reflective opportunities for the reader. I recommend digesting Kilcullen’s information one chapter at a time.
David Kilcullen opens his book with the following statement: “This book, like its wars, is a hybrid: part field study, part personnel recollection; perhaps too academic to be popular and too populist to be purely academic.” I believe Kilcullen has achieved the right blend of populist and academic. The Accidental Guerrilla is a book that will be an invaluable asset to a wide readership. It will greatly assist readers in understanding the past. Just as importantly, it will provide readers with the background they need to understand the events of the future and the role of the accidental guerrilla.
Rick Baillergeon co-authors with John Sutherland the continuing monthly series Tactics 101 for ArmchairGeneral.com.